(en)Jails in Venezuela

Luis Prat (prat@chem.ucsb.edu)
Wed, 26 Feb 1997


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JAILS IN VENEZUELA Extract from The Financial Times

Whimpering in pain, Jose' Luis Acun~a lay on a steel cot, his face and body visibly bruised. "They tortured me with electroshock," he murmured almost deliriously. "They said I was hatching an escape plan and they threatened to gas and kill me if I didn't admit. But I think it's because of what I said against the prison guards and the torture in our ward."=20 The jail's barren infirmary contained little more than a broken scale and the hospital cot that Acun~a lay on. The door stood ajar and we could hear the voices of approaching prison guards in the hallway. We looked at each other nervously. "If I tell you who did it I'll get in trouble," he strained himself to say. Three days later Jose' Acun~a was found dead in his cell. Prison officials say a fellow inmate stabbed him but several prisoners claim the guards themselves are responsible for his death. Acun~a is only one of many who died in Catia jail, which is due for demolition next month Prison officials admit that about 12 prisoners were killed on average every month. The inmates say the number is twice as high. Located in a low-income district in Caracas, it has been the most visible evidence of the inhuman living conditions and brutal treatment within Venezuela's prisons. The building itself is testimony to years of seething violence, which occasionally erupted into bloody mutinies. Its concrete fa=E7ade is cracked and riddled with bullet holes. Garbage and human excrement in front of the building are piled nearly as high as the second floor. Prisoners shout to passers-by out of their windows, most of which have neither a glass pane nor grill. Pope John Paul II, during a visit to Venezuela last year, made a symbolic stop at Catia jail and called on authorities to halt human rights abuses and reform the country's penitentiary system. Only a stone's throw from Catia jail, in a make-shift shack on the side of the road, a middle-aged woman entrepreneur leases well-trodden shoes by the hour for visitors fearing their own footwear could be stolen inside the confinement. A two-hour swap of shoes costs 150 bolivars (30 US cents). Wearing my own ragged pair during a recent visit to Catia, I made my way along the dark, paintless corridors, amid a nauseating stench of urine. Emaciated inmates pleaded for food, money and cigarettes. On the fourth floor of Ward 4, I entered one of the cells, which are subdivided by sheets hung from the ceiling. The eyes of its six inmates lit up. They were starving for outside contact and eager to talk. One of them, Joaquin, has spent four years in jail for allegedly having stolen a loaf of bread at his neighbourhood bakery. The real culprit has since been identified but, like many inmates, Joaquin has never seen a lawyer or a judge. "The thing is that we have no rights. The voice of a prisoner is worth nothing," he says. "This and a lot of luck is what you need to survive here," says Joaquin's cellmate, pulling out from under his mattress a Chuzo - a type of dagger made by hand, often of water pipes or window bars. His frail body contrasted sharply with the vigour in his eyes. "If you're not respected you neither get food, nor a bed, nor anything else," he quips. He admits having stabbed a person to death over an argument.

Across town, inside the courtyard of his parish in the working-class barrio Petare, Father Camun~as, a Spanish priest who heads a church group aiding prisoners, says he has denounced such killings countless times usually to no avail. "We live in a state of impunity," he says. Father Camun~as likens Venezuela's prisons to Nazi concentration camps and has denounced the existence of "gas chambers" in numerous prisons. He says prisoners are sometimes locked up in their cells and poisoned with tear gas or household insecticide. Besides providing legal aid to prisoners, his support group, Peace and Justice, which receives aid from the European Commission, helps family members with the psychological impact they and their relatives suffer. Maria Vargas, who regularly visits her son in jail, says that he has been left with deep mental scars. "He is completely traumatised by the beatings they give him. It affects them when they go back on the street. It's a nightmare," she says in despair. On her last visit to jail, Vargas says: "I saw a young prisoner being stabbed to death. They then cut his body in to parts and threw him out of the window. I cried." Such savage violence has on several occasions provoked public outrage within Venezuela and abroad. As a result, the government is planning to move its inmates to other prisons after Catia is demolished, where they have been promised better treatment. The move has been widely applauded but critics say it is little more than cosmetic. The country's prisons, which have a total capacity of only 15,000, continue to house more than 25,000 prisoners, according to justice ministry figures. Irving Betancourt, the director of Catia jail, says "over- crowding is the principal source of all problems. It not only produces rivalry among prisoners but may also provoke excessive punishment by prison guards. "Perhaps that is what human rights groups refer to when they say there are violations of these rights here." Reducing the prison population would mean that prisoners would have fewer needs, he explains, and that "there would be less need to punish - take disciplinary measures - as frequently". The latest incident came last October, when 25 inmates in La Planta prison, just outside Caracas, burned to death after guards fired tear gas and, it is alleged, fire bombs into a cell block. Eight officers of the National Guard are being investigated. =20 High-ranking prison officials admit that they have more than a problem of space on their hands. Antonio Jose' Marval, until recently national director of the country's prison system, says: "Besides improving the prisons' infrastructure, we are training our prison staff, punishing those that violate prisoners' rights, and seeking to speed up the judicial proceedings, whose delay leads to flagrant violations of human rights." He adds that only 7,000 out of Venezuela's 25,000 prisoners have actually been tried. "Some have been in jail for more than three or four years only to be found innocent." Marval admits that corruption and a shortage of government funds make reform of the penitentiary system an uphill battle. Father Camun~as says the state is to blame not only for squandering money but also for creating social conditions that foment rather than prevent crime. "The Venezuelan prison system in some sense is a synthesis of life outside," he says. "When you go to a community and don't find a school, when you go to a hospital and don't have a syringe or a bed - who is the real criminal here?"=20

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